As we talked about last week, ISIS is clearly entering a new phase as they lose territory in the Caliphate. I said that they might transform into a “carnage-based idea”, but of course that is pretty vague, and not really informative. I had meant to bring up this piece in War on the Rocks by Clint Watts, who goes into great detail about the three different types of ISIS affiliates: Statelets (as in Yemen, Libya), Insurgency (like Boko Haram) and Terrorist Organization (Saudi Arabia).
Watts discusses foreign fighters, trained in the caliphate, who will be unable to return to their actual homes after ISIS collapses in Syria and Iraq. They are the ones to watch to see the strength of the movement. “The most indicative data will come from the roughly 15% of Islamic State foreign fighter survivors I estimate will be unable or unwilling to return home. These “floating” fighters lacking roots to a homeland affiliate will be inclined to choose the most promising global affiliates for safe havens.”
I think this is very true. Over the last 25+ years, we’ve seen increasingly-sophisticated foreign fighters find the group that best represents both their ideology, and, more important, the desire for successful jihad. It’s why AQAP was so powerful; it was the most far-reaching and far-sighted AQ affiliate out there. But now we see even AQAP struggling to reach an even newer and less-patient generation, losing fighters to ISIS. As they increasingly clash, though, I’d put my money on AQAP.
And that’s the big question, for me. ISIS was extremely bold in declaring a caliphate, knowing that the aura of success (and their actual battlefield success) would draw in more foreign fighters, and more money. As they begin to lose on that battlefield, will ISIS central still have much control? Will the ISIS brand, to use an awful term, still mean much? That is, when shifting toward affiliate-based statelets and insurgencies, will they still be ISIS in any recongnizeable way, or just groups with a shared heritage but different, more localized goals?
That to me is key. In the same article, Watts mentions how Central Asian fighters might “choose to resettle with an Asian group known for attracting foreign fighters, such as the Khorasan wilayat or possibly more likely the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).” The IMU has been around for a long time. It’s been both a generator and absorber of jihadists. It has long-term and essentially-localized goals. I think that a lot of groups, no matter their worldly ambitions, eventually get settled into what is happening around them. What made ISIS different, even more so than their lust for carnage and media sophistication, is that it pretended otherwise. But even with the spate of attacks, even with the “inspired” killers in cities around the world, they spent far more time fighting the near enemy.
So then, as they change, as lose that idea of the caliphate, will ISIS really mean anything? Or will they be just a blip? An important one, one that changed the game, for sure. But in the end, will it just be a splintered movement, a period of consolidation followed by fracturing, before the next consolidation? I tend to think so. I think their “affiliates” will be even less affiliated than AQ. That might make whatever they are, in however many forms they are, even more dangerous, though, as everyone will have to up their game to get recruits.
Would be interested to know how I am misreading this, of course.